In 2008, the people of California failed the state’s LGBT couples. In 2012, three states passed referendums to legalize gay marriage, the majority of the country supported gay rights and the Supreme Court made landmark rulings in favor of our LGBT community.
What happened in the span of four years that allowed the country to go from California, of all places, being horrible to the victories of 2012 and 2013?
Of course, the activism of the LGBT community and its allies played a significant role, but something else served to drive the country in a certain direction. In four years, Hollywood happened. More specifically, television happened.
Yes, I am attributing the shift in the social movement for gay rights in part to the small screen. Starting in 2009, you saw an influx of token “gay best friends” in wildly popular shows such as “Glee” and “Modern Family”; everyone knew that Barney from “How I Met Your Mother” was in real life openly gay. While the representation of the “gay best friend” was problematic (read: all white males playing a stereotype), it was never fundamentally derogatory — for the most part, the “gay best friend” had impeccable taste, went shopping with you and, most importantly, was nonthreatening and funny.
“Look!” television was saying, “gay people are not innately evil! They’re hilarious!” What television ultimately served to do was to normalize a certain way of viewing a subset of people. And that is precisely what television is best at doing — normalizing a viewpoint. In the case of LGBT rights, TV gave average American viewers, especially those who have no interactions or encounters with the LGBT community, a distinct impression of what having a gay friend would be like. You couldn’t love “Modern Family” without loving Cam and Mitchell.
As was the case with the “gay best friend,” the representation of minority groups, or lack thereof, shapes American perceptions, often subliminally. If I ask you to think of a lawyer, who comes to mind? What is the first image that pops in your head before you pause to think a little further? More likely than not, you thought of a white male, and if you didn’t, snaps to you for being a “Good Wife” or “Damages” or Jessica on “Suits” fan (or whatever other reason or show you may have). If you did think of a white male, I don’t blame you. It’s what TV has given us to work with — it’s what TV has normalized within us.
We are living in the Golden Age of television — even the mindless drivel of reality TV has its guilty pleasure perks. Forget the old hags who complain about moral deficiency. They’re old for a reason. Never in the history of TV could you get a production the size, scale and quality of “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead.” Nor could you get a storyline so intricately paced and plotted as seen in the likes of “Mad Men,” “Homeland” or “Breaking Bad.”
And that’s not to mention TV going online via Netflix or Hulu or the endless number of illegal streams on the Internet — which makes me a freaking mobster because 98 percent of my friends have committed the aforementioned federal crime.
This Golden Age also means television has the potential to do so much good. Casting directors could do so much good. Writers’ rooms could do so much good. So this semester, I won’t be here to tell you what to watch or not watch. I’m just going to be that little thumbnail on your screen, informing you of what television can do to get it right. More “Top Chef,” please.